The subject of the death penalty continues to draw debates on whether it is justifiable or not. The death penalty is a form of capital punishment that involves the deliberate killing of people as a form of punishment for committing offenses that justify execution (Banner, 2022). The death penalty has been a form of punishment for a long time, with many ancient civilizations practicing it. However, the emergence of human rights and civil groups have vilified the act for being a violation of the right to life. As a result, many countries, especially in Europe, abolished the death penalty and resorted to reforming the offenders through rehabilitation rather than punishment. However, this practice remains justifiable in many countries, especially in the Middle East and the United States (Banner, 2022). This paper argues that the death penalty is only justifiable under three circumstances, including retribution, deterrence and a form of communication.
The death penalty can be justified based on the theory of retribution. According to this theory, those who commit serious crimes deserve serious punishment that inflicts the same degree of pain that they inflicted on the victims of the crime (Walsh & Hatch, 2018). The concept of retributivism has been associated with the law of retaliation, which claims punishing offenders is intrinsically justifiable for justice to be served. According to this law, the severity of the penalty should be equivalent to the degree of the crime committed. Immanuel Kant likens the law of retribution to the principle of equality, where he argues that a criminal who has committed murder deserves nothing less than a death sentence (Udoudom et al., 2019). Kant explains that no other punishment for a murder case can replace the death penalty because there is no equality between death and remaining alive even under the utmost despicable conditions (Udoudom et al., 2019). In most countries, including the United States, the death penalty is usually served to criminals who have committed murder crimes.
Justice is only served to the victim if the offender is executed and suffers the same fate as the one the victims experienced. It would be unjust to let the offenders of murder cases live while their victims are dead. In that case, the law of retribution and the principle of equity would be violated. The critics of the law of retribution have argued that it violates the principle of the right to life. However, John Locke defends the justification of the death penalty based on the law of retribution by arguing that when an offender commits murder, they violate the victim’s right to life (Pineo, 2019). Therefore, they declare themselves destructive creatures who have the potential to violate other people’s right to life. As a consequence, such offenders need to be eliminated from society just like a dangerous lion or tiger should be destroyed when they threaten people’s lives.
Since human rights are correlative and reciprocal, when murderers violate the right to life, they withdraw the state’s correlative responsibility of protecting their rights to life. Additionally, the law of retribution in justifying the death penalty can be analyzed based on the principle of fairness. According to this principle, the parties engaging in a mutually beneficial system must obey the rules governing their cooperation (Finley, 2021). Therefore, since the association between the murderer and the victim resulted in the victim’s death, the murders have to obey the rules of their cooperation and suffer the same fate as the victim.
The second law governing the justification of the death penalty is as a form of deterrence. According to the concept of deterrence, the punishment that criminals suffer based on the degree of offenses they commit is likely to influence potential criminals from committing such offenses in the future (Muramatsu et al., 2018). Therefore subjecting murderers to the death penalty is aimed at deterring other criminals from the thought of committing such acts to fear of suffering the same fate. Although the effectiveness of the death penalty acting as a deterrence has been questioned, supporters of this notion argue that the merit of the death penalty as deterrence is based on common sense. According to common sense, life is the most valuable element to human beings. Therefore, many people fear death which robs them of life (Sigler, 2018). Therefore potential murderers will be reluctant to kill, knowing that their offense will subject them to execution and resort to less serious crimes that would serve them life sentences at most.
Capital punishment as a deterrence can be viewed in several ways, including a simple deterrence. According to this perception, the existence of capital punishment influences potential criminals to change their motive by comparing the benefits of committing the crime with the severity of suffering capital punishment (Sigler, 2018). Additionally, the death penalty can act as a deterrence and a moralizing force. In this case, the existence of the death penalty is meant to express the disapproval of heinous crimes, which influences people to change their behavior to shun the disapproved behaviors (Sigler, 2018). Furthermore, the death sentence can act as deterrence by reforming undesirable behaviors in society and influencing the public into obeying the law for fear of committing crimes that are punished by execution.
Thirdly, capital punishment can be analyzed based on the expressive theory where punishment is inflicted on the offenders as an expression of the resentment and disapproval standpoints regarding a particular behavior. The perception of the death penalty as a form of communication disapproving of a particular behavior has been closely associated with the deterrence theory of punishment (Deogaonkar, 2020). The death penalty as a form of communication can be perceived as the community’s expression of disapproval and censure for a severe felony. Using punishment to express community disapproval of a felony can be analyzed through the denunciation theory. According to this theory, any form of punishment for serious crimes in society should reflect the societal dislike of that crime (Deogaonkar, 2020). Therefore, the death penalty should be considered as the utmost societal repulsion towards the crime of murder.
In some instances, society employed the denunciation theory to express people’s outrage toward certain grievous crimes. Such instances include lynching of the suspects and vigilante justice. However, expressing outrage in such forms tends to create a state’s disorder and lawlessness (Deogaonkar, 2020). Therefore, it is justifiable to use the death penalty as a form of punishment within the legal system to express the community outrage in a more helpful, orderly approach. Additionally, the denunciation theory justifies the death penalty to satisfy societal vengeance and resentment against a serious crime.
The various circumstances that which the death penalty is justified are only valid when the sentence was made based on the evidence presented before the court. There are many instances where cases have been influenced by other external factors such as race, gender and the social class of the offender (F Shatz et al., 2020). Under such circumstances, the death sentence is unjustified because it violates the principles of equity and fairness. In other words, when the hearing is not fair, the offender is likely to suffer a more severe fate than the victim, which undermines the institution of the death penalty.
Additionally, using the death penalty to communicate societal disapproval against heinous crimes tends to communicate society’s perception of the worth of life. There is a sense in which the death penalty portrays human life as less important and can easily be taken under certain circumstances (Joko et al., 2020). When society perceives life this way, they are likely to get used to the death penalty and undermine the objective of using the death penalty as a deterrence. Furthermore, various studies have indicated that using the death penalty as a means of deterrence has a low impact on preventing the occurrence of grievous crimes in the future (Joko et al., 2020). According to opponents of the death penalty as a deterrence, other justifiable and humane punishments such as life sentences have proved to be effective in deterring the occurrence of crimes.
In conclusion, the circumstances of justifying the death penalty as a form of justice for the victims of grievous crimes such as murder are more reasonable than the grounds against the death penalty. The basis of the law is to serve justice for the victims and punish the offenders. The use of the death penalty to punish criminals who have committed serious offenses satisfies the aims of the justice system. The theories of retribution, deterrence and communication justify why a death penalty is an effective tool for administering justice and controlling undesirable behavior in society. There are many circumstances where the serious offenders were subjected to rehabilitation and reformation but repeated the crimes when they were set free. Therefore, the death penalty is not just a form of punishment but a preventive mechanism that aims to minimize the repetition of such heinous acts by eliminating the perpetrators. The administration of the death penalty implies that when criminals violate the right to life of their victims, they justify the state’s right to violate their lives on behalf of the victims.
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